Category Archives: Classroom Culture

Conferring and My Wish for a Time Machine

I am as guilty as the next guy. When I first started teaching, I didn’t have any idea how to get students to read more, write more, do more in my English class. I didn’t even know I would have to work so hard. Although I was in the middle of raising my own teenagers (and they all turned out great), I had no idea how to inspire other people’s teens to give books a long enough look to want to read them or to take the time needed to write something they would want others to want to read. I was all about my content, my lesson plans, my choices, my control. I did most of the talking. I did very little listening.

I remember the first day of my first year teaching. Students sat in assigned seats, alphabetically by last name. I asked each student, seat by seat, row by row, to tell everyone their name and one thing they hoped to learn in their freshman English class. I have no idea what they said — except for one.

“My name is Susie, and I hate white people.”

I am a white woman.

I might have felt stunned, hurt, appalled. I do remember thinking, “The audacity!” and shouldering an internal huff. I tried not to let these words sink me before I ever got afloat, and for the most part, I think I succeeded. Susie and I learned to work together that year, and she did fine in my class.

But my idea of success is much different than it was back then:  I no longer think fine is ever good enough.

I think about those young people from my first few years of teaching, and if time machines were a real thing, I’d set the dial to 2008. I would do things differently because I am different. I know better. I learned to be better.

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Last week I facilitated a day-long training on implementing the routines of readers-writers workshop in secondary classrooms — a shift in pedagogy so students sit at the center and learn through authentic reading and writing practices. These teachers are eager, and their district leadership is providing support to make this happen. Yet they struggle.

In table-group conversations, two topics came up again and again:  Our students lack discipline. We need more tips on conferring.

What’s obvious to me now, that wasn’t back when I first started teaching, is a clear connection between the two. Students need to be heard. Now, I am not saying that implementing a workshop pedagogy will fix all disruptive behaviors, but I do believe these behaviors are often evidence of a lack of conferring. Students need to be seen and heard. (See more on why here.)

We talk a lot about creating a positive culture in schools and cultivating learning communities where relationships thrive. These take intention, effort, and time. In ELAR classes, these take intentionally designing instruction that utilizes every square meter as we practice authentic literacy skills with authentic texts and model the effort it takes to build our identities as readers and writers. To do all of this well, we must meet our students where they are in their learning, or in their apathy, or their attitudes, or whatever we want to call it. Conferring, those one-on-one little talks with kids, is where we do it.

As with anything that deals with humans, it has to start with listening. Listening jumpstarts relationships. Relationships build community. Community shapes culture.

8 Tips for Talking to Adolescents

If I could relive day one of my first year teaching and my interaction with Susie, I’d make sure she knew I heard her. I’d pull up a chair at the beginning of our next class, and I’d listen. That would be the start of Susie doing more than just fine in her freshman English class. I am pretty sure of it.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves her life in North TX. She’s currently reading We Got This by Cornelius Minor, Embarrassment by Thomas Newkirk, and Braving the Wilderness by Brene Brown. She may be a completely different person come 2019. Find her on Twitter @amyrass

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The Teacher, the Story-teller, the Writer: Guest Post by Milree Latimer

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by author-educator Milree Latimer

Teaching might be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.

John Steinbeck

To write fiction, one needs a whole series of inspirations about people in an actual environment, and then a whole lot of work on the basis of those inspirations.

Aldous Huxley

Some days when I reflect upon my years as teacher, then as an elementary school principal, a high school vice- principal, and a professor of education–I see a thread. As William Stafford writes in his poem The Way It Is “There’s a thread you follow. It goes among/things that change. But it doesn’t change…/While you hold it you can’t get lost…/You never let go of the thread.”

There has been a thread throughout my teaching days, one that has manifested itself in my life now as a writer and published author. It’s been there all the time. A long gaze back reveals how I have grounded myself, the children and the teachers with whom I’ve worked, in the flow of story. There is a natural quality in the life of teaching that feeds the story-teller.

The narratives and chronicles of the educator’s life fed my yearning to write.

•••••

“Come, tell me your stories.” I said. The children in my kindergarten class and I gathered on the carpet. We told stories to one another: made-up tales of adventure, show-and tell chronicles of the life of a five year old, once-upon-a-time boldness.  It was 1963.

“Whenever I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I always say that the first thing is to read, and to read a lot. The second thing is to write. And the third thing, which I think is absolutely vital, is to tell stories and listen closely to the stories you’re being told.”

~John Green

••••

“Let’s find a story together, draw it, write it, tell it.” I said.  I set my over-sized journal on the classroom easel. One by one they talked about what their story might be that morning – there’d been a snowstorm, white drifts were accumulating at the windows. Together we thought aloud. “A weather report for school announcements!”  They wrote, they drew, they told their stories. It was 1967. It was first grade.

••••

“You had the ball in your hands, Mark with few seconds on the clock–Tell us what that was like” I said.  It was 1974. Mark was an eighth grader.

“Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.”
~May Sarton

••••

“Tell me what you hope for. Tell me what happens in your classroom that astonishes you. Tell me how you came to this, to be a teacher. Begin your educator’s biography this morning, write the last chapter when you retire.” A class of soon-to-be teachers at a Faculty of Education. September 1990.

•••••

The Graduate class was entitled “Reflective Practice.” The assignment: “What do you do; why do you do it the way you do; what do you hope for? A philosophical and personal portrait.”

A student’s response moved me. He wrote from a deep place within himself.  His was a narrative revealing his journey, his was a reflective piece of writing that inspired.

What truly set the path to my personal exploration was a question asked of me in one of my first courses taken at the Master’s level. When asked ‘who are you,’ my immediate response was ‘a wandering soul searching for answers.’ That answer came from somewhere deep inside…. I realize that there are many aspects of my life that I need to connect…I have to reflect on what it is that I actually do and the reasons surrounding that. (Tyrone Perreira, June 2004)

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Four characters in my novel THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, are a composite of graduate education students with whom I worked from 1996 till 2004.

I held the images of those students as I wrote the story of Casey MacMillan, Professor of Education. The conversations that wove throughout the chapters represented some I may have had with my Master of Education students.

Casey gave air and space to her words. She believed that spoken thoughts and responses needed time to establish their own significance rather than being run over by too-hasty support or worse, ill-considered questions.

 As the author of Casey’s story, I discovered my experiences engendered a quality of truth within the story.

Professor Casey, the main protagonist taught about love, loss and the human condition. Even though she locked away her emotions within her life, her teaching bore a wisdom that connected her with her students.

When I wrote Casey’s story there was a direct line between myself as teacher and myself as author. A conversation between Professor MacMillan and her doctoral student Rob exemplifies this link:

Rob opened his briefcase reached in and pulled out a manuscript–his thesis. Her hope for all her advisees and her grad students was that they discover their own energy of possibility.

“Here’s what I really want you to see.” Rob said. He leaned forward and slid a page across the smooth mahogany table.

When she finished reading the page, she placed it on the table slowly, carefully–Resting her chin on her hand she began: “It’s a radical approach to tell your own story as your thesis. Saying that, it’s not impossible…difficult yes. (P. 99 Those We Left Behind)

••••

“Capturing shards of memory, writing specific scenes, I began to discover…” (Floyd Skoot, 2008).

There is a thread that I hold. Writing is my inner life moving me into the open a passage to the page where I am exploring, imagining, and remembering. I connect to my experiences, I hold the thread, I never let go.

Writing is a coming home. Like Toko-pa Turner (2017), I remember myself home.

Resources:

Skoot, Floyd, (2017). The Wink of the Zenith. The Shaping of a Writer’s Life. University of Nebraska Press.

Turner, Toko-pa, ( 2017). Belonging. Remembering Ourselves Home.

Her Own Room Press. Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.

Milree Latimer is a writer who spent most of her life as an educator and professor. She has an undergraduate degree from McMaster University, a Masters of Education from The Ontario Institute For Studies In Education, and a Doctoral degree in Education from Penn State University. An expat Canadian, she lives among the mountains in the Pacific Northwest of the United States with her husband Jerry and their three cats. She is currently at work on her next novel.

It’s a Good Day to Talk about Talk

Many of us are on edge. You may feel it, too.

I woke today thinking about something I heard in the first professional development session I attended as a new teacher:  We read literature to learn what it means to be human. It provokes a seemingly simple question, and one that’s prompted rich discussion with my students:  What does it mean to be human?

Maybe we don’t talk about our shared humanity enough. Maybe we should do that a little more.

For those of us who embrace choice reading, we often refer to the words of Rudine Sims Bishop:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

Let’s think about this line:  “When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.” Shared humanity.

Last year at NCTE, Lisa, Jessica, and I had the chance to sit down and chat with Cornelius Minor. We were three white women educators working to listen and learn and do more to advocate for equity and social justice in our classrooms. We knew Cornelius could help. He did.

“We start by focusing on what we have in common. Our humanity,” Mr. Minor told us. Then he highlighted the difference between diversity and inclusivity:  Diversity is everyone sitting at the table. Inclusivity is everyone sharing equal power at the table.

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Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

So what does this mean for me as a teacher, a facilitator of professional development, a writer, a mother, and a grandmother — someone who desperately cares about not just my family, but others’ families, about my country and the interactions we have with one another, about the future and all that entails?

What does it mean for you?

Sure, getting students reading and talking about books is a great starting place. But we also have to open spaces for talk. Cultivating risk-rich safe spaces where readers and writers can share their ideas, struggles, and successes about topics and issues that matter to them is vital to cultivating a civil society. I’ve long thought that our classrooms represent a microcosm of our society. If we can facilitate critical conversations where students respect and truly listen to one another, maybe we have a chance at changing conversations on the street or in courtrooms or press conferences or Congress.

Idealistic? Sure. But that’s the nature of hope.

In her article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” Bishop concludes with these lines:

Those of us who are children’s literature enthusiasts tend to be somewhat idealistic, believing that some book, some story, some poem can speak to each individual child, and that if we have the time and resources, we can find that book and help to change that child’s life, if only for a brief time, and only for a tiny bit. One the other hand, we are realistic enough to know that literature, no matter how powerful, has its limits. It won’t take the homeless off our streets; it won’t feed the starving of the world; it won’t stop people from attacking each other because of our racial differences; it won’t stamp out the scourge of drugs. It could, however, help us to understand each other better by helping to change our attitudes towards difference. When there are enough books available that can act as both mirrors and windows for all our children, they will see that we can celebrate both our differences and our similarities, because together they are what makes us all human.

We come to understand each other better, yes, through wide reading, curating libraries with diverse, vibrant, engaging titles by authors of diverse heritage and backgrounds. Reading more matters. Couple Bishop’s thoughts with these by Lois Bridges:

Reading engagement is nothing short of miraculous—engaged readers spend 500% more time reading than do their peers who aren’t turned on by books—and all those extra hours inside books they love gives them a leg up in everything that leads to a happy, productive life:  deep conceptual understanding about a wide range of topics, expanded vocabulary, strategic reading ability, critical literacy skills, and engagement with the world that’s more likely to make them dynamic citizens drawn into full civic participation.

Yes, wide voluminous reading matters. A lot.

But so does talk.

I believe it’s through talking about their books, discussing their similarities and differences, their characters, conflicts, and resolutions; talking about their writing, helping each other see angles they might not have seen, validating ideas and challenging others — all in safe spaces of shared respect — that we fast track students’ abilities to engage with each other and with their world. Our world.

So on this election day, I would ask you, dear reader, one favor:  Between now and the next election, can we all do a little more to open spaces in our instruction to facilitate more meaningful discussions? Let’s amplify our shared humanity.

 

Amy Rasmussen has no middle name, but if she did, it would be “Idealist”. She believes everyone is a child of God and should be loved as such. She’s excited to attend NCTE this month and hopes you will attend her session at 4:15 on Saturday as this blog team presents “Accomplice”-ing Great Things: An Action Plan for Equity, Inclusivity, and Allied Partnerships in ELA Classrooms. 

On Writers’ Testimonies & Why We Need Them

If I want to call myself a writer, I better start writing. Seems simple enough, right? I’ve read tons of quotes from writers who say the best way to begin is just sit down and bleed on the page. But I struggle.

As I was trying to write this post, with my dogs barking incessantly at an invisible squirrel in the backyard, and The Walking Dead booming from the bedroom tv where my husband languished with flu-like blahs, I thought of all the tweets last week for the National Day on Writing (fantastic inspiration and ideas there).

tweet#whyIwrite

I thought of why I write:  to think, to feel, to clarify, to play with language, to vent and heal and commit to change. All the reasons that everyone else writes. I am not unique.

Or am I?

Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading the writing of Donald Murray. (Learning by Teaching: Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching is my bible as a writing teacher. Huge thanks to my friend Penny K. for the recommendation!) But I’ve also delved into Murray’s Shoptalk: Learning to Write with WritersIt’s a collection on quote on writers about their craft. Murray states in the preface that he began collecting quotes on writing when in junior high, filling twenty-four three-inch-think notebooks with at least eight thousand quotations. His motivation? He just wanted to know how writers wrote. Murray explains the importance of writers’ testimony:

     Many people have the romantic notion, encouraged by those writers who feel comfortable in the magician’s robes, that writing is an instinctive matter of talent, an art, not a craft, and therefore cannot be explained.

     But writing is not an unintelligent act. Writing is a craft before it is an art, and writers can and do discuss their craft in terms we can understand. There are good reasons teachers and students of writing should hear what writers say about their craft.

     . . . I bring writers into my classroom through their written testimony. As writers of today and yesterday–female and male, young and old, poets and novelists and playwrights and nonfiction writers–talk about their feelings and their problems while writing, my students discover that their natural responses to writing are often the same as experienced writers.

     This is vital. Students facing a writing problem will often find they have to solve it by starting over and will fell they have failed. When they read the testimony of experienced writers, however, they discover that they too act like writers and this increases their confidence in designing their own solutions to their own writing problems. School often teaches unnatural, non-writerly attitudes toward writing–know what you want to say before you say it–and students need to see that their own instincts are the instincts of published writers.

     Students also need to see that writers are not looking back at a finished text but are in the act of confronting the blank page–or looking at the world before their is a page; trying to get started; trying to keep a text on tract or following it off track; working to make a text clear to themselves and to a reader. Writer’s counsel isn’t distant, detached from the act of making; it is immediate, speaking to the writer in the middle of making, a master sharing the tricks of craft with an apprentice at a common workbench.

I need these reminders–for myself and those I hope to take on the identity of writer, other teachers and students alike. Murray explains:

Too often we defend writing as a skill, saying writing should be taught so that students can fill our a job application or write a better letter asking someone to buy a cemetery lot. Writing is a skill on that level, but it also a craft and an art; it satisfies an essential need of the human animal.

So how do I share more writers’ testimonies? How do I help satisfy the essential need of the humans in my care daily?

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Here’s some ideas:

  • Share some quotes on writing by writers. There’s lots of insights in that link and even some nice images like the one above.
  • Share Poets & Writers and follow on Twitter, too. I love their weekly update.
  • Read and share articles from NY Times Writers on Writing. This one by Amy Tan is a favorite and makes a fantastic mentor text to write beside.
  • Think, write, model, talk, share, and repeat with writers every single day. Let them know they are not alone in their pursuit of putting meaning on the page.

When I brought the barking dogs in, and before the tv went off and the zombies faded out in the bedroom, I heard a line that gave me pause. It went something like this: “This place is a canvas, and we are the paint. We were sent here to create. We did.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that relates to writing. I write to paint my world in the swirl of language, to create images and goals and imaginings, to figure out what I feel and think and know. I write because it feeds my need. I am human, so I write.

Amy Rasmussen writes most often sitting at her newest DIY project, a desk she repurposed from a vanity her paternal grandfather made for her grandmother over 70 years ago. She lights a candle and listens to Michael Bluble radio on Pandora. And when she gets stuck in her head or on the page, she reads. Follow her @amyrass

Guest Post by Amanda Penney: The Workshop Classroom and YOU!!!

Note: This post signifies quite a milestone for the ELA 1 team I had the privilege of joining this year.  As of this morning, and thanks to the graciousness of this blog’s creators, the entire team has now published on this site.  To see a post by our department chair Megan, click here. Austin posted this summer, here. Sarah, our team lead posted a few weeks back, and my one year anniversary as a regular contributor is in January. This agency affords us power.  It gives us a voice in our fight for literacy.  To the creators of this blog, Thank You.

The workshop classroom is undoubtedly overwhelming to embrace at first. It is difficult to find information on how to properly implement this pedagogy, and there are many misconceptions of what workshop actually looks, for instance, on sites like TeachersPayTeachers. It’s a lot of work to be a workshop classroom. You actually have to read and write yourself if you want your students to benefit from this structure. You need to learn how to identify a solid mentor text from a variety of works and know what you can do with them successfully.

But the work pays off. It gives you, the teacher, so much more than you could ever have imagined. To keep your students engaged in their choice reading, you have to keep up with the never-ending influx of newly published works. You are forced to venture into genres of writing that you would not normally reach. For instance, I read Matt de la Pena’s We Were Here, and I can assure you, it is not historical fiction (my typical go-to). My students were writing about their foster care experiences and retelling their mishaps that placed them in alternate schools. Matt de la Pena provided an avenue for me to better understand these students, who in turn, helped broaden my reading interests.

For me, this shift has been monumental. As a workshop teacher, I actually get to read what I want to read and have picked up books I wouldn’t normally and enjoyed them! I get excited when I stumble upon a passage that might as well jump off the page and into my computer, so I can begin identifying my mini lesson and therein construct my fantastic lesson cycle. It is fun and exciting, and I have such a unique opportunity in my profession to be creative each and every day.

Writing has been the most exciting shift for me personally. I had lost a lot of confidence in my abilities as a writer when I entered college. I will never forget attending Texas A&M’s orientation for new students and the very blunt speech we were given. Simply put, the speaker stated that the five-paragraph-essay would lead to nothing more than a failing grade, so we better learn something new now or “See you later!” I was terrified, of course, because I had been taught nothing other than the five-paragraph-essay. The only piece I had ever written that did not follow that god-awful structure was my college admissions essay. Little had I known, I had “workshopped” my most proud piece of high school writing to which my first line stated “I am crazy.” However, one piece did not shake the terror I felt upon beginning my first day of classes the following week.

As a transfer student my sophomore year, I took an Advanced Composition course and a Shakespeare course. I held a solid A in my Advanced Composition class with helpful pointers and typically positive feedback from my professor. Yet, I could barely hold a low C in my Shakespeare class where I was regularly criticized for my writing style. I spent most of my time in the writing center, and at one point, the graduate assistant was so baffled by my C- paper over Shylock’s speech “I am a Jew” that he asked for the opinion of his “boss” who returned with a shrug and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know why you got a C…. it looks like he just dislikes how you write and is grading you accordingly. Good luck.”

I spent the rest of my English degree pursuit frustrated and confused. I concluded that writing was a painful process, which would typically yield disappointment from my readers. I would never truly be able to improve because I, unfortunately, did not and would not inherit the mutant skill of mind-reading from Professor Xavier or Gene Grey.

Then, I began to teach. My first year, our campus did not have workshop at all, and teaching was painful day in and day out. My students really did not benefit from The Odyssey or the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, and to be honest, neither did I. My second year began with the introduction of workshop, which was difficult to understand, considering I not only had never taught this way with my meager one-year experience under my belt, but I also had not learned this way. So, I struggled through what I learned and still could not get my students to engage. They always referred to their “I give up” phrase of “I don’t know what to write about,” and it left me frustrated and exhausted each day.

I had heard about writing along with my students, but I was afraid to do this. I did not identify as a writer and had long since decided I wasn’t very good at it. My students could never know this of course… But I was getting nowhere, and it was time for a shift.

So, one day, half-way through my second year of teaching, I tried something new. I chose to write with my students. I had been flipping through the pages of Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This and stumbled upon his “1 to 18 Topics” lesson cycle. I embraced my fears of writing with my students and took the dive head-first the next day.

I started safe with soccer and intended to choose a new topic to expand each class period. To my astonishment, every single student had their pens to their papers and were scribbling madly as if they had been starved of this freedom for too long. Conferring revealed a vulnerability I had not anticipated, and I became inspired to show my own vulnerability as the day continued. I realized I had a lot to say, and I wanted to “say” it through my writing. I had starved myself of this freedom for far too long, and I was eager to continue writing.

My third-year of teaching is when workshop really kicked off in my classroom. I was searching for an engaging mentor text that utilized simple sentences as my students struggled (and still do) with sentence boundaries.  An excerpt from Dune stood out to me and I was eager to write beside it with my students in class. The excerpt is as follows:

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Each student wrote for 10 minutes and were asked to begin their piece with “I must not __.” We then pulled a Penny Kittle and revised it to ensure it was only constructed of simple sentences. My students wrote some incredible pieces, and I am convinced their success is a result of my own enthusiasm for the lesson itself. Their writing inspired my writing and in turn began to reconstruct my identity as both a writer and teacher. I was embracing myself as a writer, and my students, in turn, began to embrace themselves as writers.

Workshop has transformed my perspective of writing and provided a unique platform for me to embrace myself as a writer. It has exposed a variety of genres to read but also has provided a variety of genres I can choose to write.

Prior to workshop, I used to hate poetry. Yes. I used the word “hate” … as an English major and teacher…. It was this daunting task and an awful entity that lurked in the dreary school hallways. My teachers never taught me to write beside a poem and always found the most difficult poetry to “interpret” in class. In Ohio, my freshman English teacher appeared to enjoy watching us squirm in confusion and insisted we leave his classroom never ever knowing what the author’s message actually was. I despised poetry’s very existence because of this and determined its purpose was a cruel joke on the reader.

Workshop completely shifted this perspective of poetry for me. I would never had guessed in a million years that I would currently be reading not one, not two, but THREE poetry books at once. The thought of writing my own poetry was a complete joke as well. Yet, here I am, writing beside poetry in my classroom and encouraging my students to do the same. It has a completely different purpose now than it ever did before. Its purpose is no longer to torment my being but to excite my creativity and provide an avenue for expression I never would have known existed if it wasn’t for workshop. The first poem I wrote beside was a Rudy Francisco piece and it looks like this:

Mentor Text:

When people ask how I’m doing

I want to say,

my depression is an angry deity, a jealous god

a thirsty shadow that wrings my joy like a dishrag

and makes juice out of my smile.

I want to say,

getting out of bed has become a magic trick.

I am probably the worst magician I know.

I want to say,

this sadness is the only clean shirt I have left

and my washing machine has been broken for months,

but I’d rather not ruin someone’s day with my tragic honesty

so instead I treat my face like a pumpkin.

I pretend that it’s Halloween.

I carve it into something acceptable.

I laugh and I say,

“I’m doing alright.”

-Rudy Francisco, Helium


My Version:

When people ask how I’m doing

I want to say,

leave me alone, please, now and forever while

my anxiety leaps and jumps throughout my body

and makes me cringe.

I want to say,

standing here is an allusion of sanity,

a trick I feel I will never truly perfect.

I want to say,

this fear is my only possession I have ever had

and I want someone to destroy it so it cannot return,

but I’d rather not burden someone’s day with the demon that encircles me

so instead I treat my face like a canvas.

I paint with bright colors.

I create something mundane.

I smile and I say,

“I’m doing alright.”

-Ms. Penney


I felt so freed of my previous misconceptions with this one piece, and as a result, my class and I enjoy our daily “Poet Moments” inspired by my colleague Charles Moore. I revel in this peace and tranquility and am grateful for workshop with each and every poem I have the privilege to write with my students. This joy has completely altered my initial definition of poetry, and I will forever be indebted to workshop and this genre of writing.

Workshop has given me the opportunity to grow as a reader and writer. It has given me a purpose and a drive to find new and exciting ways to engage not only my students but myself. I no longer feel as if writing is a painful process and the nagging frustration of how my invisible readers expect me to write has long since passed. I have a voice and a means of expressing that voice, as do you, every single day.

Amanda Penney is a bit of a perfectionist and is grateful for the patience that her colleague, Charles Moore, has for her and her ever-changing blog post. She plays soccer whenever she can and loves exploring nature with her only child (her dog who she considers her child) Shanti. She is a complete nerd when it comes to anything comic book oriented and is currently exploring the possibilities of her favorite series, The Uncanny X-Men from the late 1960’s, becoming an exciting and invigorating mentor text. She hopes this will be the topic of her next guest post, that is of course, if Charles is willing to embrace another bought of Penney and her procrastinating-perfectionism.

A Rebuilding Year – Growth Mindset for the Weary Educator

It’s been a solid decade since I taught freshmen, but those babyfaced, wide-eyed foundlings and I are on a long overdue reunion tour this year.  Such youth. Such innocence. Such…incredible chaos. I’m straight up exhausted. It’s a late February tired in early October on this homefront and wow, do I feel a heck of a lot older than my (insert inaudible mumbling here) years.

But, I’ve got a contingency plan, my fellow workshop enthusiasts, and it goes a little something like this:

Keep at it.

Keep at it for the ones whose names you learned first, out of necessity to rein in their testing behaviors. Keep at it for the ones who just can’t seem to get their curiosity, listening ears, and class materials in the same place at the same time. Keep at it for the ones who have fought you on every book selection you’ve slid ninja-style before them without yet hearing the sweet click of a kid who is hooked on a great book. Keep at it for the ones glued to your book talk, but still “too cool” to ask the teacher about something to read. Keep at it for the long haul…we’ve only just begun.

Sometime a few months back, in the blissful noncombative expanse of summer, I must have had a premonition of the deep need I would have to hear these words and repeat, mantra-style, this cadence of pushing forward to what can and will be better because of my efforts.

I was putting a cover together for my writer’s notebook so I’d have something personal to show my students, my 9th graders especially when it came to creating a notebook that invites exploration. I had been cleaning out a closet in our office/playroom, sorting through mementos I was saving to document my daughter’s latest art projects, and I came across two seemingly disparate items that sparked a theme for my writer’s notebook, and my year.

The first was a collage that hung in my locker when I was in high school. A random conglomeration of magazine clippings that spoke to some of my extremely adolescent aspirations.

growth.jpgThe other, a stack of unrelated photos from when my grandparents built their house in the early 1950’s. The tiny black and white photos cataloged the creation of a home that I would come to know as a place with countless memories, but in these photos, it was an unfinished, stark-looking shell.

The kitchen I would learn to bake in did not yet exist. The trees I would climb and swing from had not yet been planted. The four-lane highway that runs before it now, was then, just a dirt road.

But in those pictures, beyond the unfinished walls and barren yard was something even greater than it’s current state of general chaos – potential.

From those photos, I selected one and went on a mission to gather other illustrations of potential and growth. I added to my cover a picture from my wedding day, another of Ellie on one of her first days of daycare, a daily behavior chart from those same early days of “school,” and a sample of her earliest “stories.”

Together, these pieces helped me share with my students a purposeful personalization of my notebook, and shed light on part of my goal-setting process for the school year:

Overcome the fear (The freshmen are coming! The freshmen are coming!) and keep at it. Push forward through what’s hardest. Look for signposts of small successes along the way. Always travel in packs – collaborate, seek feedback, lean on others for support (Huge shout-out here to my fellow English 9 support team who have kept me afloat these first few weeks). And these pieces of advice are as true for the educators, as they are for our students who are just gaining their footing as readers and writers.

So, as my freshmen file in today, I will look past my tired and the somewhat frustrated, and instead, remind myself of the big goal I set for myself and their potential for growth. I will look to the young scholar I have had to speak to in the hallway on more than one occasion already about his disruptive behaviors sidelining the entire class. I will look to the young woman who rarely even makes it to class, and I’ll capture each time I see her as an opportunity to try and get her to come back. I will look to the socially awkward young man whose first speech of the year suggested he likes online video games to make friends so he can avoid people judging what he looks like in person. And for each of them, and all the rest, I will focus on what my conversations with them one on one can accomplish. Conferring is where the magic really happens, and if you’re too tired or overwhelmed to talk with kids, as I have sometimes already felt this year, then it’s time to reprioritize. Quickly.

It’s for those students who have admitted they haven’t completed any books since about the 5th grade. It’s for those students who say they love to write, but never want to share that writing with the group. It’s for the students who loved reading at one point and somehow that love was stomped out of their lives. It’s for the compliant ones, almost most of all, who need a spark instead of a dying fire to light their way back to the beauty of being readers and writers.

It’s because they can grow, they need to grow, and so do I, that I do this work every day. And though that road sometimes seems very long, often thankless, and sometimes overwhelming to the point of mental breakdown, it’s where this work will take us that’s important. So…I’ll keep at it.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Utilizing Every Square Meter

We’ve got them in every class… those students who love to sit in the back of the room or in the corner that’s difficult to get into once chairs are out, backpacks are on the floor, and drawers have been opened, etc. The corners and spaces that present challenges to navigate, and without being aware of it, make it so we let things slide. Maybe we don’t check in as often during notebook work, maybe we don’t see what’s on the computer screen as much during our writing work time, maybe we don’t always see what page they are on during independent reading time.

Maybe you all have figured out how to prevent these “dead spaces” from being a thing in your classrooms, but I was still working on it at the beginning of my twentieth year of teaching.

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It was a concept I had first started thinking about when reading Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion a number of years ago (the updated version can be found here).

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I remember having a conversation with colleagues about “owning the room” based on what we had read in the book. I knew then that I had dead spaces, and I’ve worked on eliminating those spaces ever since.

This year I wanted to think about my classroom differently. I didn’t want to “eliminate dead spaces” as much as I decided I wanted to utilize the space to its fullest potential. I wanted each student to have a front row seat for at least part of the class time every day. I feel that this is inclusive; the students who often stay under the radar in the quieter spaces of my classroom can still find the spotlight, and the students whose personalities require constant attention sometimes find that they aren’t in the limelight for a little while. I want to spread my attention evenly and fairly, and I think that utilizing our space deliberately is one of the answers to this issue.

While nothing is every perfect, I think I’ve stumbled upon some good solutions.

I started by figuring out where the traditional problem areas are. I’m sure many teachers can relate: it’s primarily the corners and the walls. So I first focused on the perimeter of my classroom.

I looked at the corners and made sure that each of the four corners has a specific purpose.

  • One corner has the TV screen and rug so that students can come up to participate in mini-lessons.
  • One corner is where students enter and exit, so I used the wall space for student work and my currently reading notice. I also re-purposed my podium — I turned the front of it to the wall and am using it as a place for students to sign in when they leave class or come in tardy. There are also handouts for students on the lower shelf.
  • Another corner has a cupboard in it, which is always accessible. It’s for students — they can find extra supplies as well as their textbooks (we use them more as anthologies, to be honest).
  • The last corner is the most popular. It’s the reading corner. It’s next to the classroom library, has the comfy couch, and also showcases student work as well as our reading agreements.
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This corner has the TV/computer set up for mini-lessons.

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The corner with my door showcases student work, has a spot for handouts and the bathroom/tardy sheets, and has my “currently reading” notice on the door.

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The corner with the closet isn’t off-limits to students. Extra supplies and textbooks (we’re calling them anthologies this year) are accessible to students at any time.

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Student work is displayed in the reading corner. Currently on the walls are some grade eleven one-pagers. These also provide ideas for what other students might want to read next.

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The reading corner is a popular spot; it’s right next to the classroom library and has the comfortable furniture.

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Mrs. Swinehart is currently reading…

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Students come to the rug for mini-lessons in this corner of the room.

After looking at the corners, I examined the purpose of each of the four walls.

  • One wall is our classroom library, which is always a popular place to be. We use it and love it every day, in every class. It’s organized, at eye level, has a rotating display, and most importantly, includes titles that will appeal to my students.
  • Another wall is what would traditionally be the back of the room. It already had bulletin boards on it, so I hung anchor charts that are relevant on a daily basis. I refer to them, I walk to and through the space, and kids actively turn their bodies to look at them.
  • The next wall is what would traditionally be the front of the room. It’s where the white boards are, so it’s naturally where I put our daily agenda, and where I write the things that don’t need to be digital or saved on a chart. Books are displayed on the marker tray, monthly book talk lists are on one of the bulletin boards to the side of the white board, and it’s where we can go for “spur of the moment” lessons that aren’t created digitally in advance and don’t use the document camera.
  • The last wall is a wall of windows, and where a teacher might put a desk. My “desk” is there, but it’s pushed up against the wall and serves as a supply table. Next to it is our conferring space, which is used when I’m not circulating the room, and is even as a space for completing our Running Records. When I’m circulating the room, it’s another space for students to complete the learning in our classroom.

 

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Our classroom library is constantly in use.

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The white board wall is also used for book displays, a daily agenda, and unit goals.

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The “teacher desk” is also a supply table. I’ve reserved a student desk behind it for the “teacher stuff” – including the obligatory year-round-use Christmas coffee mug, stack of loose papers, and Norton Reader. (I’m assuming every teacher has something like this?)

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The conferring space/extra space for student learning

 

Lastly, I had to look to the inside of the room. The perimeter is important, but the students tend to “live” towards the center of the room. I’ve tried to make it so the desks aren’t pointed in one particular direction so that each space feels important. I’ve moved desks so students have partners, I’ve had arcs facing different directions in different parts of the room, and sometimes the desk arrangement feels random or messy. I think that’s okay. The point isn’t to have orderly desks. It’s to have students who are engaged in their learning.

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While I’m sure I’ll still have days when I don’t visit every square foot in each and every class period, I think it’s an improvement on what my classroom set up once was. I don’t think there are any spots for students to “hide” and I feel comfortable walking around in each corner and cranny of the classroom. Because I circulate throughout more of the room, and because my students get up and move more often to the spots where they need to be, I interact with my students on an individual level more often than before. It helps to build relationships, which leads to trust, which leads to learning. This makes for a more inclusive, learning-focused classroom, and that’s our ultimate goal.

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A panoramic view from one of the conferring chairs. On the right side of the photo, behind the fan controls, is the closet. The rest, I think, is self-explanatory.

What do you do that ensures that every corner in your classroom is used for the power of learning?

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family have moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, where a new adventure has begun.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

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